Knowing Mother, Knowing Myself

April 24, 2014

How does one get to know one’s mother?  The question becomes very important as one tries to get to know oneself.

The process of bonding and understanding begins even before birth and is nurtured early by the intimacy of feeding, bathing, soothing to sleep. The personality types of both mother and daughter are expressed in this dynamic, and mom’s emotional health is a key factor in raising an emotionally stable and secure adult. When one does not have that security, a wounding occurs and a lifetime of compensation ensues.

My mother was the third and last child in her family, following a “biological” brother and an “adopted” sister. She apparently was a surprise baby for whom the family reservoir of emotional energy was then empty. Her mother, my grandmother, was herself the product of a large and seriously dysfunctional home. She chose favorites among her children, and emotionally abandoned the other(s); it was discovered upon her death that she had pitted brother against sister in competition for her affection. She left her estate to only one of the three; yes, that means she disinherited two of her three children, and my mom was one of them.

In childhood, my mother was left to her own devices for emotional stability, and chose to read. She would curl up in the attic for hours at a time with a great book and be transported to another world. She had a particular affinity for Anne Frank, we discovered upon perusing her library. While her older sister was being taught how to cook and sew, Mom was gaining her education through reading. She excelled in school, particularly in history and English, but always felt inferior particularly in anything scientific or mathematical. This translated into serious technophobia as an adult.

The message she grew up with was that she was not particularly loved, appreciated, or worth her mother’s time of day. Her innate intelligence and curiosity, however, gained her recognition at school. After particular success in French, she was emboldened to apply to the University of Michigan, where she majored in the foreign language. She met my dad there, and they were married the summer after her graduation. My dad gave her the unconditional love and support she needed.

I was born ten months later, and by Mom’s later accounting and my own observations, she was in over her head immediately. (What new parent isn’t?) In her case, because she had received so little emotional nurture in her own early life, she did not have a reservoir within herself from which to draw in parenting her children. In order to cover the wounding of emotional abandonment, she began to construct a family system that would protect her fragile center. This meant that her husband and children were required to orbit around her needs, and her limitations became theirs as well, as long as she had the power to pull that off.

This is perhaps why I have a strong personality. My entire life has been a quest to differentiate myself, to break out of her orb, and to become the person God designed me to be. Born of two introverts, my gregarious social style was hard for them to handle. I talked too much; I had unrealistic dreams; I liked and excelled in mathematics, while also progressing in the family language of music. But most of all, I had what are normal emotional needs for nurture and affection, and these were not met in my childhood. In fact, it was a sign of weakness to have these needs.

With this background, which can’t be considered unusual or unique I understand, it is a miracle of God that Jesus got a grip on my soul when I was seventeen. At that time, God began the nurturing and healing process that has by now produced a mature adult. The emotional distance of my parents set the stage for a yearning to be known and loved by God, and I am still on the Way. I am grateful to God for bringing my husband into my life, and he (and his parents) have shown wonderful patience that has enable me to heal. We had our two children before we were thirty, while I was still undergoing a radical “renovation of my heart” (cf. Dallas Willard), but I believe that I have not perpetuated the worst of the previous generation’s emotional deficits.

How does one get to know one’s mother? There is direct self-disclosure, indirect observation, the reports of family and friends, and perhaps a journal. My mother wrote an autobiography several years ago, and she kept a daily journal for decades. This document has been gifted to the University of Washington archives, sealed to researchers for 50 years and never open to any of her relatives ever. I used to feel very angry about that, because I have been trying to figure out my mother my whole life. But now that she is gone, it has been remarkably easy to let that go, because she is known and loved by the One who made her and her story is an open book in heaven.

Next post: The Anxious Climate


3 Responses to “Knowing Mother, Knowing Myself”

  1. houstonhodges Says:

    Oh, wow. Glad you waited for perspective, glad you posted what you did, what gripping deep-level insights about how you turned out despite (or because of) those early forces. And how amazing (and weird) to see whether a person responds to incorporate or to reject a particular influence! (We’ve just seen “August: Osage Country,” another tour de force for Ms. Streep, and a dreadfully unhappy film about just such influences.)

  2. Hans Cornelder Says:

    How I rejoice that God in his grace has broken the crippling tradition of generations and made a new beginning in you!

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